Empire and imperialism in The Sign of the Four

This novel is set against the backdrop of the Victorian Empire. The treasure that is stolen repeatedly through the novel comes from India, which at the time of the story was under British rule. Through the treasure and the luxurious decorations of Sholto's house, Conan Doyle associates luxury with the empire.

There is also a sense of threat to the empire that is conveyed through the mention of the uprising of 1857. In addition to this, the appearance in London of Tonga, the islander, could be perceived as threatening.

How does Conan Doyle show this?EvidenceAnalysis
A sense of luxury and wealth is associated with the idea of empireSholto's apartment is lavishly decorated with items from the East.Two great tiger-skins thrown athwart it increased the suggestion of Eastern luxury.The empire was, for many Victorians, symbolic of wealth and power. Thaddeus' home encapsulates this idea.
The people of imperialised countries are seen as 'savage'.The character of Tonga is presented as barely human.The savage instincts of his companion had broken out.The idea that his instincts would be murderous creates a crude image of the islander. This upholds the Victorian ideas of empire in which the colonised people were seen as savages.
Small is patronising towards TongaSmall suggests that Tonga was devoted to him as if he were a god."He was staunch and true, was little Tonga. No man ever had a more faithful mate."The devotion shown by Tonga seems naïve and reflects the attitudes of Victorian society towards the empire. The word 'little' is patronising and lacks empathy or respect for the islander.
Imperialist attitudesSmall explains that he made money by presenting Tonga as a fairground attraction."We earned a living at this time by exhibiting poor Tonga at fairs and other such places as the black cannibal."This highlights the Victorian attitudes towards people from the imperialised lands.

Analysing the evidence


What elements of empire and imperialism does Conan Doyle highlight in this novel?

  • A patronising and often ignorant attitude towards the imperialised people.
  • The Indian uprising of 1857 forced Jonathan Small into hiding.
  • The character of Tonga represents the common Victorian belief that savages and cannibals populated the empire.
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